Mercury Westergard Custom Coupe
In the pioneer era, when hot rodders were stripping roadsters and coupes of superfluous parts so they could run fast at California’s dry lakes, the custom car crowd was equally zealous about removing garish chrome trim, shaving door and decklid handles and jettisoning staid, factory designed grilles they thought weren’t cool. Customizers strove to improve the look of lower-priced “Detroit iron,” especially Fords, Mercurys and Chevrolets, to achieve the clean, “classy” appearance of more expensive models.
The customizing craze began on the West Coast in the mid-1930s and reached its peak as a national trend in the 1960s. The formative era was the period immediately before and directly after World War II. Radical customs required major metal surgery. Chopped and filled hardtops, or padded soft tops, sectioned bodies, fadeaway and/or completely molded fenders, fender skirts and partial-to-complete body dechroming were just a few popular custom trends.
Chopping and sectioning, where a portion of the roof pillars or body panels were removed, required immense skill. Before fiberglass and plastic fillers became popular, alterations were commonly done using soft, malleable lead. Melted and reshaped, lead was also used as the basis for artfully sculpted bodywork. That led to the name, “lead sled,” a semi-derisive term still used to describe ’50s-era customs.
In addition to bodywork, suspensions were lowered so custom cars took on a more streamlined look. A few cars were channeled - an extensive operation that involved dropping the entire body over the frame, then remounting it for an even lower appearance. Customizers developed attention-getting hues like Candy Apple Red, along with pearlescent and metalflake paint processes, to further distinguish their cars.
Although the first professional customizers started as basic body and fender men, once they began selling their ability to perform metal magic, they were often able to drop collision repair and just concentrate on restyling. Some became legends. Harry Westergard, a Sacramento-area bodyman, pioneered the earliest cool look. Many shops copied his work, and George Barris worked for him to learn the trade. Harry favored vertical LaSalle or prewar Packard grilles, fadeaway fenders, filled door handles, inset rear license plates, fender skirts, twin spotlights, and hand-rubbed lacquer finishes.
In 1940, a Sacramento man named Butler Rugard bought a brand new Mercury convertible and took it to Westergard’s shop to have fadeaway fenders crafted and installed. Two years later, Rugard commissioned Westergard to chop it, using the original framework to accept a custom padded, Carson-style unit, with a “mail slot” rear window. The work was done some years ahead of Glenn Houser, who built many such chopped tops after WWII.
It’s believed this car’s ‘42 Buick grille was installed at the same time. One prominent feature is its extended and reshaped hood, reminiscent of a “Sharknose” Graham, or even a Figoni & Falaschi “Narwhal” Delahaye. Packard bumpers and hubcaps give it the look of a more expensive car. The tunneled taillights were originally on a 1940 Chevrolet.
The custom ‘40 Mercury’s classic “taildragger” silhouette was achieved by leaving the front end height alone and lowering the rear with a de-arched spring and long shackles. Under the hood is a bored-out Mercury flathead V-8 with an Offenhauser triple intake manifold and finned aluminum heads. Dual exhaust tips peek discretely out from beneath the bumper.
Judging from old photographs, this Mercury may have originally been painted black or dark maroon; its present-day bright candy apple finish would likely have been a mid-‘50s modification. Custom car aficionado, Jack Walker, who restored this car, bought it from Ron Marquardt, who owned it for more than thirty years, and in turn, had bought the Mercury from the Fernandez family; Mrs. Fernandez was apparently Butler Rugard’s daughter, so the ownership trail is completely known. Pictures exist of this car on display at the 1950 Sacramento Autorama, and at one time, it was fitted with ribbed ’37 DeSoto bumpers. It was also displayed in 2005 at the Pebble Beach Concours d’Elegance and featured in Rod & Custom.
Surviving pre-WWII custom cars are extremely rare; finding a Westergard original, replete with several unique modifications, is significant indeed.
This car was auctioned off by RM Auctions in September 2009 at the Petersen Automotive Museum, Los Angeles, California.
Est. 150 bhp, 245 cu. in. over-bored Flathead V8 engine with ¾ camshaft, Offenhauser triple manifold and high-compression heads, three-speed manual transmission, semi-elliptic transverse leaf springs front and rear, solid front and rear axles. Wheelbase: 116"
Source: RM Auctions
Photo Credit: Copyright Darin Schnabel